Is it really true that intercessory prayer changes the prayer-er, i.e., the person praying? It can happen, but often does not.
If it does, are we automatically motivated to become change agents in our own families, communities and beyond?
Do our personal (or corporate) prayers ever include the question, “Lord, how can you use me (or us) to improve or remedy this condition or this situation?
More likely, the tone of the prayer-er suggests a response like, “Lord, I’ll leave this one in your hands. Please fix it.” After our “amen,” we might be tempted to murmur, “Good luck with this one, God. You’ll need it.”
Issues of the day like racism are prayer-worthy matters, of course. The easy way out in prayer is simply to assign such concerns to God and piously claim we have done our part.
To rephrase the question posed at the beginning of this column of type: If I am concerned enough to pray about the hard issues of the day, should my prayer include a question to God about how I might make a serious contribution to the solution?
For instance, when I pray about the crisis of racism in the world — or in my corner of the world — should I expect to come away from my conversation with God with any marching orders? And perhaps with a change of heart and perspective about people and issues?
A lot of people claim to know all they need to know about people of a different skin color, language, religion, culture and dozens of other things. Clinging to stereotypes gives them an excuse to avoid personal contact with people they fear, do not understand and do not know how to relate to as a believer.
In some of my early travels among people who live in other parts of the world, I discovered that more than a few thought most Americans were not unlike the rich oil family of “Dallas” TV fame. A few were surprised that I did not own a helicopter like the Ewing family on television, or that most other Americans didn’t either.
Back in the ’60s, people from other countries admitted they feared traveling to America because of the violent, dangerous protests they assumed permeated all of our culture and not just some university campuses, cities and geographic pockets.
Perhaps the most significant barrier to understanding others is simply not communicating personally with them, listening to their stories and sharing our own. Jesus was not guilty of this omission. He shocked his own disciples when he engaged “unacceptable” people and treated them with respect. Jesus listened to them (and they to him) and ministered powerfully to them.
With his penchant for engaging “the least of these,” Jesus welcomed the derisive description “friend of sinners,” not a title many of us relish for ourselves.
On the matter of race — or any matter — it is possible to bring it up in prayer repeatedly but never to get to know a person of another color personally.
Like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ good-neighbor parable, even a Christian can exercise the “spiritual gift of avoidance” out of fear of contamination or any number of other risks. Too often people do so not accidentally or unwittingly but with clear intent.
Have you ever had a “Samaritan” come to your aid — someone so different that his assistance surprised you? Have you ever had a person of another skin color, language or culture that took it upon herself to look after your well-being while you were on her unfamiliar turf?
The experience will change your perspective and perhaps the rest of your life. Demonstrating concern for others is a powerful act when motivated by God’s loving Spirit.
The key to overcoming the biggest challenges in society is active change-agent involvement — and not just verbal lament — from those of us Scripture refers to as “the people of God.” Murmuring and complaining did not work well for the Hebrews escaping exile in Egypt; there is no reason to suspect the results will vary in the 21st century.
Fear gets in the way. Courage was required in days of old, and courageous attempts are still honored today. Under God, the faithful have this potential in their spiritual DNA. They dare not ignore or squander it; to waste a God-given gift is a sin against him.
It is hard for contemporary people to relate to a 700 BC Jewish prophet moved by God’s Spirit to voluntarily exclaim, “Here am I. Send me!” The commitment proclaimed Isaiah’s availability, his passionate desire and his willingness to step up to the next level in his fidelity and relationship to God, and in service to his people.
What Isaiah witnessed in worship prompted him to make a commitment to fearless faithfulness.
Most of us are familiar with the hymn “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” written and put to music by the husband-wide duo Sy and Jill Jackson in 1955. She penned the words; he composed the melody.
They introduced the song — a prayer — at a retreat for 180 young people from varied backgrounds in California. On a beautiful mountainside, the young people locked arms, sang and resonated with the lyrics. Soon, the music had been introduced all across America and then overseas.
“Peace on earth” was hardly a new theme, but the words that followed — “…and let it begin with me” — challenged all who sung and prayed it to personally commit to make a difference for others.
Lord, let it begin with us, too.
Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way.